17 February 2016

Boromir, Fear, and the Pity of Frodo (FR 2.x.396-402)

In studying the long lead-up to the introduction of Gollum as an active character in The Taming of Sméagol, I have come more and more to consider the following question: given that the portrayal of Gollum in the first three books of The Lord of the Rings is negative, dark, and monstrous, why does Frodo pity him? The narrator (Frodo) has taught the reader to regard Gollum with fear and loathing, and thus Frodo's pity, when it comes, may seem right in a high moral sense, but terribly wrong in visceral, practical terms.  Let us first examine the moment itself:
Things would have gone ill with Sam, if he had been alone. But Frodo sprang up, and drew Sting from its sheath. With his left hand he drew back Gollum's head by his thin lank hair, stretching his long neck, and forcing his pale venomous eyes to stare up at the sky. 
'Let go! Gollum,' he said. 'This is Sting. You have seen it before once upon a time. Let go, or you'll feel it this time! I'll cut your throat.'  
Gollum collapsed and went as loose as wet string. Sam got up, fingering his shoulder. His eyes smouldered with anger, but he could not avenge himself: his miserable enemy lay grovelling on the stones whimpering.  
'Don't hurt us! Don't let them hurt us, precious! They won't hurt us will they, nice little hobbitses? We didn't mean no harm, but they jumps on us like cats on poor mices, they did, precious. And we're so lonely, gollum. We'll be nice to them, very nice, if they'll be nice to us, won't we, yes, yess.'  
'Well, what's to be done with it?' said Sam. 'Tie it up, so as it can't come sneaking after us no more, I say.'  
'But that would kill us, kill us,' whimpered Gollum. 'Cruel little hobbitses. Tie us up in the cold hard lands and leave us, gollum, gollum.' Sobs welled up in his gobbling throat. 
'No,' said Frodo. 'If we kill him, we must kill him outright. But we can't do that, not as things are. Poor wretch! He has done us no harm.'  
'Oh hasn't he!' said Sam rubbing his shoulder. 'Anyway he meant to, and he means to, I'll warrant. Throttle us in our sleep, that's his plan.'  
'I daresay,' said Frodo. 'But what he means to do is another matter.' He paused for a while in thought. Gollum lay still, but stopped whimpering. Sam stood glowering over him.  
It seemed to Frodo then that he heard, quite plainly but far off, voices out of the past: 
What a pity Bilbo did not stab the vile creature, when he had a chance!  
Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need.  
I do not feel any pity for Gollum. He deserves death.  
Deserves death! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give that to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends.  
'Very well,' he answered aloud, lowering his sword. 'But still I am afraid. And yet, as you see, I will not touch the creature. For now that I see him, I do pity him.'  
Sam stared at his master, who seemed to be speaking to some one who was not there. Gollum lifted his head.  
'Yess, wretched we are, precious,' he whined. 'Misery misery! Hobbits won't kill us, nice hobbits.' 
'No, we won't,' said Frodo. 'But we won't let you go, either. You're full of wickedness and mischief, Gollum. You will have to come with us, that's all, while we keep an eye on you. But you must help us, if you can. One good turn deserves another.' 
'Yess, yes indeed,' said Gollum sitting up. 'Nice hobbits! We will come with them. Find them safe paths in the dark, yes we will. And where are they going in these cold hard lands, we wonders, yes we wonders?' He looked up at them, and a faint light of cunning and eagerness flickered for a second in his pale blinking eyes.  
Sam scowled at him, and sucked his teeth; but he seemed to sense that there was something odd about his master's mood and that the matter was beyond argument. All the same he was amazed at Frodo's reply. 
(TT 4.i.614-15, emphases original)
It is essential to point out here, and to bear in mind as we go on, that Frodo in the book is not taken in by Gollum, as the version of Frodo in Peter Jackson's film is.  He may pity him. He may wish him well (4.ii.622-23). He may even trust him, conditionally and because he has no other choice (4.i.618; iii.640; cf. ii.624). Yet he is never fooled. Between their meeting at the foot of the Emyn Muil and their parting in Shelob's Lair, for as long as they journey together, Frodo repeatedly indicates that he knows well the danger Gollum poses, and that even the restraint placed upon him by his oath to the Precious will last only so long (4.ii.623-24; iii.640-41; viii.713-14), an oath Frodo will twice use to terrify Gollum into submission (4.iii.640-41; vi.687). 

Note how Frodo's first action compares to what he said to Gandalf.  He shows not the least hesitation. He springs up, draws Sting, seizes Gollum, and threatens to cut his throat. So far here, Frodo seems as swift and decisive as when he refused to pity Gollum and declared him worthy of death in The Shadow of the Past.  And yet if that were entirely correct, we might expect him simply to kill Gollum outright. Now in part it may well be that Frodo is finding that it is one thing to say 'he deserves death' in the safety of one's own home, and another to become the executioner of that sentence.  But there are other clues here we should not ignore.

At this crucial moment, with Sam's life at immediate risk, Frodo doesn't just kill Gollum or even simply threaten to kill him. Rather, he reminds him that he has seen Sting before and that Bilbo had shown him mercy. He then points out, to Sam's annoyance, that they cannot just kill Gollum, 'not as things are,' that 'he has done us no harm,' and that 'what he means to do' is not strictly relevant. These words, too, are striking reminders of Bilbo's encounter long before:
Bilbo almost stopped breathing, and went stiff himself. He was desperate. He must get away, out of this horrible darkness, while he had any strength left. He must fight. He must stab the foul thing, put its eyes out, kill it. It meant to kill him. No, not a fair fight. He was invisible now. Gollum had no sword. Gollum had not actually threatened to kill him, or tried to yet. And he was miserable, alone, lost. A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering. All these thoughts passed in a flash of a second. He trembled. And then quite suddenly in another flash, as if lifted by a new strength and resolve, he leaped. 
(The Hobbit, 97, emphasis mine)
So Frodo is clearly thinking of Bilbo here, and seeing the parallels in their situations, even before he recalls his own conversation with Gandalf. In fact that memory seems evoked by his own echo of Gandalf's words and attitude in response to him then. For Frodo's 'I daresay,' followed by a dismissal of what Sam has said about Gollum's intentions parallels Gandalf's 'I daresay' and dismissal of the question of Gollum's deserts.  It is at this moment that their conversation comes back to him, a conversation to which Bilbo had been as crucial as Gollum and the Ring.  But Frodo does not recall Gandalf's words with perfect accuracy:
‘What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!’ 
‘Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so.With Pity.’  
‘I am sorry,’ said Frodo. ‘But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum.’ 
‘You have not seen him,’ Gandalf broke in. 
‘No, and I don’t want to,’ said Frodo. ‘I can’t understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.’  
‘Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.   
(FR 1.ii.59)
Now, noticing that these two passages do not correspond word for word is nothing new. The remembered conversation condenses and omits much. One could easily argue that this is a realistic touch, since memory is selective both in what it recalls and what it forgets. One could also suggest, as Christopher Tolkien does, that the original conversation and the memory of it 'remain different in detail of wording, perhaps not intentionally at all points' (HoME VIII 97).  Thus the discrepancy might owe itself to chance rather than choice.  

I would argue otherwise. The words 'fearing for your own safety' represent a significant addition to Gandalf's actual statement, which stresses Pity and Justice and Life and Death merited and unmerited. To be sure, Frodo had mentioned that he was frightened, but Gandalf in his response had ignored the fear Frodo adduced as a motive. Gandalf, as we saw at that time, argues from higher ground. And yet here Frodo puts these words in his mouth.

In his recent near encounters with Gollum, Frodo had given no indications of pity, only revulsion and fear. In fact when they had come face to face in the darkness on the banks of the Anduin Frodo had also drawn his sword and then informed Aragorn -- who of course already knew -- that Gollum was stalking them (FR 2.ix.384). As Frodo knew well, Aragorn had once captured Gollum and treated him rather harshly (FR 2.ii.253). He cannot have expected less if Strider caught him again.

So what has changed? Is it merely the sight of Gollum, as Frodo openly says? Is it that Frodo has suffered more from evil and had more experience of the Ring since that morning in Bag End? We cannot ignore these factors of course. On no account may Gollum be called prepossessing, and Frodo has certainly learned much of the Ring. Yet between Frodo's encounter with Gollum on the banks of the Anduin and the moment when he holds Sting to his throat, but does not use it, something happens which can help explain Frodo's change of heart as well as the intrusion into his memory of the false detail 'fearing for your own safety.' We will be able to see it even more clearly if we step back to consider the setup. 
The heart of Legolas was running under the stars of a summer night in some northern glade amid the beech-woods; Gimli was fingering gold in his mind, and wondering if it were fit to be wrought into the housing of the Lady's gift. Merry and Pippin in the middle boat were ill at ease, for Boromir sat muttering to himself, sometimes biting his nails, as if some restlessness or doubt consumed him, sometimes seizing a paddle and driving the boat close behind Aragorn's. Then Pippin, who sat in the bow looking back, caught a queer gleam in his eye, as he peered forward gazing at Frodo. Sam had long ago made up his mind that, though boats were maybe not as dangerous as he had been brought up to believe, they were far more uncomfortable than even he had imagined. He was cramped and miserable, having nothing to do but stare at the winter-lands crawling by and the grey water on either side of him. Even when the paddles were in use they did not trust Sam with one. 
(FR 2.ix.382)
What a beautiful paragraph this is in detail and movement, from character to character and from boat to boat. Beginning with the loveliness of Legolas' vivid, dreamlike memory, and Gimli's chivalrous, romantic imaginings, we never expect the uneasy turn it takes, with Merry, Pippin, and the disturbing, almost threatening behavior of Boromir. We then follow Boromir's gaze through Pippin's eyes straight to Frodo in the boat ahead with Strider and Sam. But suddenly and unexpectedly, since our attention has just been directed to Frodo, we find ourselves with Sam instead. But the introduction of Sam here, uncomfortable, unhappy, and untrusted Sam, is a misdirection. It lightens the menace of the sentences on Boromir, but only in order to refocus it a moment later on another threat that is present on the Great River, another one who has his eyes fixed on Frodo and Frodo's burden. The next paragraph reads:
As dusk drew down on the fourth day, he was looking back over the bowed heads of Frodo and Aragorn and the following boats; he was drowsy and longed for camp and the feel of earth under his toes. Suddenly something caught his sight: at first he stared at it listlessly, then he sat up and rubbed his eyes; but when he looked again he could not see it any more. 
(FR 2.ix.382)
It is of course Gollum whom Sam has seen, but the way in which the narrator shifts our attention from Boromir to Gollum is masterful. Notice how Sam is looking back towards the boats behind his own. Given the previous paragraph, we might expect him to have caught the same 'queer gleam' in Boromir's eyes as Pippin did. But it is not so. For just as we followed Boromir's gaze forward to Frodo, but found Sam instead, so, too, we now follow Sam's back, not to Boromir, but to Gollum. Sam's remarking over and over again on Gollum's eyes further pairs these two threats. Nor is this the first time that Frodo has been the object of Boromir's intense gaze (FR 2.viii.369; ix.388). As the moment nears when Frodo must decide between Minas Tirith and Mordor, danger is converging on him from more than one direction. From Gollum of course, but also from Boromir, who, desperate to save his land, feels quite keenly the anguish of the choice which lies before Frodo. And if Gollum, as Boromir himself said, is 'small, but great in mischief' (FR 2.ii.255), what is Boromir?

So much of what Boromir says in the scene where he tries to take the Ring from Frodo plays off earlier scenes involving the Ring. When Boromir says it was only 'unhappy chance' that Frodo had the Ring, and that it should have been his, it recalls the justifications of Bilbo and Gollum (FR 1.i.33, ii.xx. 53, 56-57; 2.x.399) His statement that the Ring is 'a gift to the foes of Mordor', to use as a weapon against Sauron, turns on its head Gandalf's assertion that Bilbo and Frodo had been meant to find the Ring, with the result that they might destroy it (FR 1.ii.55-56; 2.x.398). When he imagines what he might accomplish with the Ring, and avers that ruthlessness -- that is, the want of pity -- is essential to victory, he follows in the footsteps of Gandalf and Galadriel, who also imagined what they might do if they had the Ring, but Boromir falls into the trap that they avoided (FR 1.ii.61; 2.vii.365-66, x.398). When he claims that the Ring belonged by right to the men of Númenor, he reasons as Frodo did when he said that the Ring should be Aragorn's, the heir of Isildur, but Aragorn rejected this reasoning (FR 2.ii.246-47, x.399).  When Boromir threatens to take the Ring from Frodo with his greater strength, it echoes Bilbo's paranoid fear that Gandalf wished to do the same, only now Frodo is not deceived by the Ring as Bilbo was (FR 1.i.34; 2.x.399).  And when Boromir's face changes 'hideously' and 'a raging fire' appears in his eyes, it echoes Frodo's vision of Bilbo as Gollum at Rivendell, but here the change is real, not imaginary (FR 2.i.232, x.399). It is also a reminder of the Eye of Sauron, 'rimmed with fire' that Frodo saw in Galadriel's mirror (FR 2.vii.364).  Again, however, this is not a vision, but a present, physical threat.

Finally, Boromir's attempt to take the Ring plays off the three scenes in which Frodo has freely attempted to give it away -- to Gandalf, Aragorn, and Galadriel (FR 1.ii.61; 2.ii.246-47, vii.365-66), all of whom refused to take it. But after Frodo's confrontation with Boromir, he never again makes this offer. He has seen for himself, unquestionably, how terrifying the evil that the Ring works can be. He has seen it happen to a comrade, whom he had so far known to be brave, self-sacrificing, and honorable. And after this present and personal experience of the evil of the Ring with Boromir, his vision of the Mordor and his near discovery by the Eye itself, his own eyes see some things more clearly.
Frodo rose to his feet. A great weariness was on him, but his will was firm and his heart lighter. He spoke aloud to himself. 'I will do now what I must,' he said. 'This at least is plain: the evil of the Ring is already at work even in the Company, and the Ring must leave them before it does more harm. I will go alone. Some I cannot trust, and those I can trust are too dear to me: poor old Sam, and Merry and Pippin. Strider, too: his heart yearns for Minas Tirith, and he will be needed there, now Boromir has fallen into evil. I will go alone. At once.'  
(FR 2.x.401, emphases mine)
Where previously Frodo had been afraid to go to Mordor, as Sam correctly told the others (FR 2.x.403), he now fears to remain with his companions.  The gentle phrases 'the Ring must leave them' and 'now Boromir has fallen into evil' reveal the pity that Frodo feels for the man of Gondor, quite unlike the purely harsh words he had had for Gollum, when he rejected out of hand Gandalf's suggestion that pity was in order (FR 1.ii.59).  Then, too, he had scorned the idea that seeing Gollum would move him to pity, but here seeing does precisely that, not only for Boromir, but potentially for others, too. And so, fearing what the Ring could do to others, Frodo flees the company, only to run almost at once straight into the Tale's foremost example of the evil one could fall into because of the Ring. Although the structure of the book can lead the reader to forget this, only three days pass between The Breaking of the Fellowship and The Taming of Sméagol (RK App B 1092).

Notice, however, that Frodo does not seem to see the 'evil of the Ring' working on himself. He sees his friends and comrades as susceptible to something that makes at least some of  them  -- who, precisely? -- untrustworthy. He nowhere wonders what it is doing to him. Indeed his self-deception here is visible in his thinking that, with the Ring at work, he can trust any of them, regardless of how 'dear' they might be. After all, were not 'Give us that, Déagol, my love' very nearly the last words that luckless hobbit ever heard (FR 1.ii.53)?

What is the whole question of trust bound up with except the fear that someone else will try to take the Ring for himself just as Boromir did? From Gollum's cry of 'thief, thief, thief'' to Bilbo backed against the wall with his hand on his sword, from Frodo wanting to strike Bilbo for reaching for the Ring to Boromir's 'For I am too strong for you, halfling,' the fear of this threat persists, and underlying it is one simple sentence: 'The Ring is mine.'

Thus Frodo will not only pity Gollum when at last he meets him, but will use the Ring to dominate and terrify him, while allowing himself to be called the Master of the Precious. Frodo's journey from Bag End, where he can't throw the Ring into the fire, to the Sammath Naur, where he can't throw the Ring into the fire, is no simple quest by a hero without flaws.


Gollum Before the Taming of Sméagol (I)

Gollum Before the Taming of Sméagol (II)

Gollum Before the Taming of Sméagol (III)

Gollum Before the Taming of Sméagol (IV)


  1. TroelsForchhammer03 March, 2016 04:54

    A fine discussion, thank you!

    I can see that you have chosen to only address the two books themselves, but I would like to share also a passage from one of his letters in which Tolkien also addresses this question:

    “But at this point the ‘salvation’ of the world and Frodo's own ‘salvation’ is achieved by his previous pity and forgiveness of injury. At any point any prudent person would have told Frodo that Gollum would certainly* betray him, and could rob him in the end. To ‘pity’ him, to forbear to kill him, was a piece of folly, or a mystical belief in the ultimate value-in-itself of pity and generosity even if disastrous in the world of time.”

    “*Not quite ‘certainly’. The clumsiness in fidelity of Sam was what finally pushed Gollum over the brink, when about to repent.”
    The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 181 To Michael Straight [drafts].

    I have found that Tolkien's writings on this question in this and other letters have been very enlightening for me and have helped me better understand and appreciate the significance (I dare not claim to understand the full significance) of Frodo's pity.

  2. Yes, it is Frodo's pity of course that saves him in the end, and Tolkien did call the moment of Gollum's blighted repentance the most tragic moment of the tale. Books Three and Four are full of choices that are imprudent, but which are right.

    The more I study Frodo and Gollum the clearer it becomes to me that there is a great deal more to be said about the effect of the Ring on Frodo, darker things that often exist side by side with the brighter things.